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African Architecture

African Architecture

The history of Africa is one filled with constant change and transition. The African heritage is a product of the differing cultures of the following:

These three elements, referred to as "Triple Heritage of Africa", have not only influenced the cultures of Africa but its architectural structure as well. This is a topic suggestion onAfrican Architecture from Paper Masters. Use this topic or order a custom research paper, written exactly how you need it to be.

The History of African Architecture

The Triple Heritage of Africa is seen in the Martello Towers brought over by the British in 1820 and the fortified farmhouses in the Eastern Cape. In 1796 a French trained architect by the name of Louis Michel Thibault introduced neoclassicism into South African cities. The Northern European Wilhelminian style was introduced by Dutch-trained architects Sytze Wopkes Wierda and Vixeboxse, into the old Transvaal and Orange Free State areas of Africa. As a result of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, prefabrication styling began to appear in African architectural styles, with hatches and loopholes being imported and mixed with whatever building materials were already available. After the Anglo-Boer War, a national spirit of Afrikaner Nationalism that espoused a sense of cultural identity and political power inspired architect Gerhard Moerdyk to urge a national turn from the Neo-Gothic to a Neo-Romanesque style.

Along with these external and internal influences, Africa is a product of varying ways of life. In areas where the nomadic tribes rule, the architecture consists mainly of lightweight wooden frames and skins or canvases made for travel. In the villages of Togo and Benin, the houses are built according to gender roles and religious beliefs and constructed from local materials such as mud and thatch. In urban areas, adobe architecture is used in both the vernacular and monumental buildings. The influence of Islamic religious architecture and the French Mosque are also found in many African urban areas.

African Civilizations, one of the earliest human societies, date back more than a million years as proven by the stone artifacts found in the savannah. The earliest known people of Africa lived as gathers and hunters that called for a lifestyle of constant move and change. As a result, these early tribes became scattered, and the differing lifestyles between the tribes soon developed. Due to this, the "general pattern for hundreds of thousands of years was therefore one of cultural divergence". These early nomadic lifestyles and population shifts prevented a continuity of architectural style and culture from developing in Africa.

Due to the vast regional differences and cultural influences mentioned above, the architectural styles of Africa are as varied as the peoples who inhabit the continent. In addition, regional economies have also had a direct impact on the style and type of architecture used within a region. And, the availability of natural materials influences building types in the differing areas. African populations that dwell in forest areas make use of the wooden beams, palm-fronds, tree bark, grasses, and bamboo. Populations in the steppe country use clay and hard termite earth, as well as branches and stakes plastered with clay and bast ties instead of nails.

The most primitive type of architecture in Africa is that of the cupola or beehive hut that is found in areas of East and South-east Africa. Made popular by the Pygmies, this type of architecture features the lower end of stakes buried in the earth in a circular shape, with the top of the stakes being bent toward the center and tied, thereby creating a dome-like roof. The roof is covered with phrygia leaves. Architectural development of this type of dwelling included the addition of plaited mats, internal supports, doors, barrel-shaped porches and skins and plaster of clay. This type of structure fits the nomadic lifestyles of the people in that they are easy to move from place to place. In addition to being portable, beehive structures have the capability of being aesthetically versatile in that the roof can have a gentle slope, almost flat, or steep like those in tents.

Within the capitals of the Baganda and Banyoro in the region of the East African lakes splendid cupolas are found. The cupola structural type features a cone-shaped roof and a cylinder base that is constructed separately. While the cone-shaped roof huts of East and South-east Africa and of the Nilotes are similar in shape, they differ in the exact way they are built. For instance, the Nilotes build structures where the roof does not rest on the base but instead on supports placed around the dwelling in the form of a circle. This type of architecture is unique in that it not only forms the structural bases of the main dwelling but also provides a shady veranda. The inside of the house is usually made of latticework plastered with clay or lined with plastered mats. As with beehive structures, the general appearance of the cupola can change according to the shape of the roof. In the Nuer, the roofs are usually bell-shaped, while in Bena Lulua and Azande the roofs may resemble the towers of church steeples.

The Bapende make use of the roof to add pleasing effects to the structure by adding wood carvings. This styling effect is also seen in other areas of Africa where the inhabitants of Togo and Ethiopia use pottery superstructures for ornamental purposes. The tribes of the Krej, Nilotes, Azande, and those in areas of the hinterland of the Guinea coast combine the roof and base in certain aesthetic ways in order to form their special ritual huts. The granaries of this area are usually divided by floor beams into sleeping quarters and a storeroom, and in some cases, they are separated into rooms by walls.

In the forest areas of West Africa and the western and northern Congo, rectangular shaped gable-roofed structures are dominant. These dwellings are constructed of vegetable materials that make them perfect for standing up to the wind. There are two ways in which these gable-roofed structures are usually built:

  1. Construct the unit into seven sections without a foundation built into the ground.
  2. Place stakes with the roof being supported by a framework of rafters that rests on the stakes with plaited mats or other such materials filling the space between the stakes.

The gable-roofed structure described above was common within the areas of the early kingdoms. The roof of these structures is tortoise shaped and often extends outward on one side to form a shaded verandah. In the southern regions, these houses are covered with gaily-colored geometric paintings or reliefs.

A square flat dwelling made of branches and clay is the architectural design found in an area of East Africa between Lake Victoria and Mount Kilimanjaro. This dwelling type, tembe, is almost completely sunk into the ground for protection from both the weather and enemy attack. These tembe dwellings are built close together with passageways and courtyards in between.

In the Sudan and East Africa the architecture features multi-chambered subterranean buildings. Areas of the Western Sahara and parts of the Mediterranean area feature structures with a similar design. In addition, mud and clay is also used in the buildings of Western Sudanese architecture. While the structures in this area resemble those found in other parts of Africa, they are somewhat unique in that they incorporate aspects of the Ancient Mediterranean, Oriental and Islamic influences. In this region, entire settlements are filled with these box-like dwellings, some constructed with air-dried clay bricks. Local palaces, forts and mosques are built on the same architectural principles in the area. Inside the buildings, the support beams are used as a decorative feature.

The Musqu who live one the Logone south of Lake Chad are credited with advancing the architectural features of the cupola. The dwellings in this part of Africa are divided into several rooms. On the exterior, the walls are covered with decorative designs. In parts of Ghana, Togoland and Dahomey, forts with tower-like, cone-roofed huts are surrounded by a massive wall to protect the clans inside. Inside these walls, a terrace covers the inner courtyard with the upper floors reached by ladders.

African Architecture Today

There are many historical examples of African architecture still in existence today. For example, early examples of these African styles can be seen in the settlements surrounding the Limpopo basin constructed prior to 1652. These settlements, known as the "Central Cattle-Pattern" featured circular homes with a stockade for cattle in the middle.

The nomadic cattle farmers of Africa needed shelter that was both easy to move and put up as needed. At some point during their wanderings, these farmers met up with the Khoi-Khoi tribe who had a profound influence on the nomads’ architectural style and building techniques. The result was a thatched A-frame hut known as hartbeeshuis. This name signifies the merging of cultures with "harub" being the Khoi name for reeds used as thatch and biesies meaning the same thing in Dutch. The structure itself is in traditional European style.

The whitewashed thatched Cape Dutch style of architecture is one of the earliest surviving examples of this type of construction. Although this style dates back hundreds of years, the urban form is still present in areas such as Bo-Kaap, Cape Town and McGregor. In the wine lands of Groot Constantia and Vergelegen, a much more sophisticated and grand form of the Cape Dutch style exists.

In the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, the complex of stone buildings, constructed between the 1100’s and 1400’s are known as the most remarkable of ancient African architecture. The buildings within this city hold the interests of historians and anthropologists alike due to both its size and the fact that the stone walls were constructed without mortar (Walker 76). These stone walls are still standing today, some 600 years later which is in itself, a tribute to African achievement in engineering.

Many of the buildings in Africa are constructed and decorated in such a way as to denote status. For instance, many African kings brought in skilled sculptors from great distances to ornament their dwellings (Walker 76). This royal tendency in architecture to display pomp and splendor existed even in areas that did not have kings before the colonial period. Examples of such construction can be found by studying Central African Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa who attempted to establish a royal palace on a scale of Napoleonic proportions.

Within the million of so years that life has existed on the continent of Africa, much has changed, and yet, much has remained virtually the same depending on the exact location or country under discussion. The peoples of Africa have been influenced by many outside sources, as well as by their own changing beliefs and lifestyle patterns. Today, great buildings grace the African landscape, many of which are a mixture of modernism, past influences, and the current political concerns of the country. As a result of the styling patterns and designs of many native born architects, future African architecture will emerge with a distinctive pattern of its own, although traces of past influences are likely to remain for some time.

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